Buying a Palace: A Mexican Episode
by MACKINLEY HELM
THE Jauregui sisters spoke to each other only in pairs — Marta to Ema, Carmen to Trinidad, Tula to Luz, and vice versa. Although they all lived under one roof, in a palace just off the plaza, they contrived their domestic arrangements with such ingenuity that they rarely met in the corridors and were therefore not much exposed to occasions of speech. They kept three underpaid maids, fed from three separate kitchens, and went to Mass daily in three different churches.
For a year or two after the death of don Pablo, their father, the Jauregui ladies were subject to a good deal of gossip, by reason of their peculiar behavior; but for ten years or so, public interest had languished — and was revived only once, it appears, before I made their acquaintance.
One day, five years back, the street in front of the palace was piled high with brick and cement, and Juan, the principal mason, let it out that he had been called in to build three water closets. Not long after, one of the Padres preached a sermon on brotherly love and looked straight over the heads of Ema and Marta. But the cobbled street soon was swept of its gray and pink dust, the Padre was advised by the Cura to expound more impersonal themes, and the town forgot about the wrangle.
I suppose I might have lived a long time in San Rafael Aldama without myself encountering the Jauregui oddities if I had not, within the space of some months, while I was looking at colonial houses, peered through a transiently opened door into a ruinous patio high up on the hill overlooking the town. I saw a row of untoppled Moorish columns, caught a glimpse of Baroque medallions on crooked lintels, and observed a succession of unroofed chambers of noble proportions. Lingering as long as I dared, I perceived, through an arched opening across the patio, the decayed remainder of orchards and terraces — and, in the midst of a thicket of wild berry bushes, the sparkle of water dripping into a wide stone basin: living water in that dry Mexican land.
I resolved to buy that place, if I could, and make my home there. Number 5, in the Street of San Benito, it fronted an ancient convent of Benedictine nuns, and the steep and narrow lane it gave upon promised privacy and quiet. In my mind’s eye, I had soon restored the house and tidied the grounds; but on my way down into the town, to make inquiries of the tax collector, I reflected on my painful discovery that taking possession of a property in San Rafael was not so easy.
I remembered the Peralta palace I had tried to buy earlier that year. Patriots had been born in it before the War of Independence. Rich hacendados had decorated it with the wealth that flowed from their ranches in the days when Porfirio Díaz ruled like a king. French musicians from Mexico City had played in its courtyard while an Emperor dined in the sala.
I had taken an offer of the Peralta palace in all seriousness, and spent many a sleepless night rebuilding it — laying out gardens, opening new windows, closing old doors, distributing pipes and drains, installing elevators to reach the vast height of the first story, where I proposed to live with my books and pictures in cheerful rooms lighted and warmed by the nearly perpetual sun of San Rafael.
But nothing came of weeks of negotiation; for after I had agreed to be robbed by the pair of gentle seamstresses who owned and occupied the palace — the mother and the spinster daughter who crept myopically through kilometers of empty halls and sewed fine seams in the ruins of the Emperor’s chamber — there arose a problem which I could not solve with a checkbook. Indeed, it was a problem which the first sight of my checkbook had posed.
The Peralta ladies, with the money almost in hand, could not make up their minds what to do with it. They could not, they said, fasten so many thousands of pesos to their underclothing, and where else could they put it and feel at ease in their minds? It had been a long time since they had laid their hands on such a quantity of money, and their eyes were misty when, after a long struggle between desire and regret, they bowed me out.
THEN there was that house of doña Victoria, a sweet house with pink walls to the street, a Virgin over the door, a portico cooled by a small pool of water, a patio with a lively fountain, and three handsome rooms with a view over the town. It wasn’t a palace, but it had, as they say, what it takes.
Several years earlier, on my first visit to San Rafael Aldama, I had sat and smoked with the old crone in her birdhouse.
“You have a nice house, doña Victoria,” I said.
“Do you like it?” she asked. She crumbled a piece of dry bread in her lap and set up a clatter among scores of tropical birds.
“And a very nice view!” I shouted.
The wrinkled old dame burst out laughing. “You gringos have such diverting caprices,” she screamed.
A large green parrot called Cente threw his head back and bellowed, “Gringos, gringos, gringos!” and roared with obscene laughter.
My ears were bursting when doña Victoria emitted a series of curious whistles through the stubs of her broken teeth and the birds flew quietly back to their perches. When her voice could be sufficiently heard, doña Victoria spoke.
“What would you give for the view?” she asked.
I inquired what she thought it was worth. She blinked. It was not often that she left the deep shadows of the closed sala where she said her beads in the thin blue light from a shrine to the Mexican Virgin. The walls of the house were thick, she mused, and pure stone. They had stood two hundred years, in her father’s time, and his father’s before him. God willing, they were good for two hundred more. . . . There was another gringo, not so long ago, she said, who thought maybe thirtyfive hundred pesos —
Now it was my turn to whistle. In those days, before the war had turned the Mexican soil into gold, the whole of Barranca Street, houses, orchards, and gardens, was worth less than thirty-five hundred pesos. But I dreamed about that house for a couple of years, and when I went back to San Rafael, thinking perhaps to live there, I called around and handed in a tin of tobacco. Doña Victoria received me in her dim parlor, and after an exchange of political phrases, I sailed into my subject.
“Doña Victoria,” I said, “I should like to buy your house now. But I shall need the orchard below and the cottage next door. If I can buy them at a fair price, I will pay you your thirty-five hundred pesos. I have the caprice.”
Doña Victoria sat so quietly in the darkness that I thought she could not have heard me. I began to repeat what I’d said.
“I understand, señor, I understand,” she replied in a soft, drowsy voice. “But I was thinking that it was a long time ago you were here. Only last summer a gringo was saying I ought to get four thousand pesos—” The sum came out like the death of a sigh.
“All right,” I said. “Four thousand pesos. God knows it will be on your conscience, but I will pay you four thousand pesos.”
Doña Victoria closed her eyes.
“But,” I said, “you must help me find the owners of the cottage next door and the orchard below.”
Three months passed before I went again to see doña Victoria. Scores of people, by direct means and devious, had helped me about the cottage next door and the orchard below: Lawyer Ugarte, who gave me lectures on Mexican history; doña Carlota, who vaguely remembered the name of the man who had left the orchard to his dead wife’s maid; don Luis de Landa, whose cousin in Mexico City had a friend who know where the maid was then working; my friend don Jacinto, the Marqués del Valle de San Juan de la Cruz, who asked the priest to find out who really owned the cottage next door. When all these and a host of others, for tips or for friendship, had as good as put both orchard and cottage into my pocket, I stepped around into the street called Barranca.
The door of the house stood wide open and I entered without knocking. The quiet haven I had fancied had become a market place. Dogs barked in the portico, birds screamed in the birdhouse, men and boys shouted through the patio. In every nook and corner of the premises a loom stood, or a spinning wheel. Shuttles groaned and pounded while weavers cursed and called for more cotton.
I found doña Victoria puffing at a cigarette in a corner of her crowded parlor. Behind the wrinkles of her impassive countenance, I thought I detected the shadow of a leer.
“I got to thinking one day,” she explained, “that if I sold my house, I should have to leave it. I couldn’t bear that, not until I go out in my coffin. And so I have rented my rooms to the weavers. I don’t see very well and I don’t hear very well, and so I take comfort in my rents and our holy religion. I’m sorry, but you see how it is.”
SO NOW, as I opened the door of the tax office in the municipal palace, I felt none too hopeful that the new project would have a happier ending.
Number 5, San Benito, was not listed with the city assessor. It was therefore of no particular value in the eyes of the law — for every terreno worth five hundred pesos was taxed. Here was a good omen. I might, with luck, pick the place up for five thousand.
“I can tell you privately who owns it,” said the clerk, his thumb and forefinger twitching. I reached into my pocket. “It belongs to the Jauregui sisters. They live just a block up Post Office Street.”
Of course I knew the Jauregui palace. Next after the pink Gothic church, the carved doorways of the Casa Allende, and the birthplace of Captain Johnny Aldama, the San Rafael guidebook sends tourists to look at Casa Jauregui. I knew its elegant colonial façade, with its costly meters of bas-relief sculptures, and once I had glanced into the garden behind, a square block of tangled vines in the heart of the city. I decided to approach the sisters directly — the assistance of lawyers and of friends would have meant many tomorrows — and went straight to their door, which I pounded briskly.
Nobody answered. I pounded again, none too mannerly, and still, when the echoes died down, I was met only with silence.
I walked across to the post office and complained to don Gabriel, who laughed in my face; and that was the first that I knew of the Jauregui quarrel.
That afternoon at lunch I rebuked doña Carlota, the Marquesa de Mora, at her boardinghouse table, for not having told me the story of the Jauregui sisters. The Marquesa shrugged her shoulders.
“It has been going on so long now,” she said, spreading a tortilla with chili.
“That is why it is so fascinating,” I replied. “Ten years in the same house, and they don’t speak to each other?”
Don Pablo, the Marquesa explained, had lost so much land, so much money, that he hadn’t bothered to make out a will to dispose of the rest. The daughters had quarreled about who should have what, while don Pablo’s houses, unsold and unrented, quietly crumbled away. Brother Jorge worked hard at what was left of the ranches, a few rocky acres and some rusty machines, but he could not support the whole sisterhood, try as he would; so Marta and Ema sold marchpane made up in all manner of flora and fauna, Carmelita and Trini sold teacakes to other destitute gentry, while Tula and Luz, being younger and stronger, catered at parties for gringos.
“I should have thought,” I said to doña Carlota, “that their business affairs would be more likely to prosper if the sisters took the trouble to open the door when somebody knocked.”
“But don’t you see,” the Marquesa replied, “that that’s just the point? Whoever it was that opened the door, the caller would be sure to want somebody else, and Marta, for instance, would see Trini in hell before she would tell her the Guzmans had called for their teacakes, or that Father Otón had come for a visit.”
Doña Carlota had grown up with Carmen and Trini, the plump, middle-sized sisters who wore their gray hair in a bump at the back, and offered to take me to see them tomorrow. But I was impatient and wanted action today. I sent my boy to stand in the door of the post office and told him to follow the first pair of sisters he saw coming out of the palace. I went to the nearest café and waited. In an hour or so, my servant came in to tell me that he had followed two of the ladies to the shop of Señorita Anita, the sister of Lawyer Ugarte. I went there at once and asked to see some striped poplins to take to the shirtmaker.
The sisters were discussing ecclesiastical matters with Señorita Anita, who spent most of her life arranging flowers in churches. From the Marquesa’s description, I recognized Luz and Tulita. They wore their skirts halfway up to their knees and braided their hair with bits of blue wool; while Marta and Ema, like Carmen and Trinidad, wore their black dresses down to their ankles, besides slicking their hair in equal parts over their temples.
“Excuse me,” I said to the Señorita Anita, “I’m afraid I have overheard you discussing St. Anthony’s Orphanage, and that reminds me, I have forgotten to send in my dues. Will you forgive me? ” And I never stopped talking until I was presented to the Jauregui ladies.
“María Gertrudis Jauregui at-your-service,” said one. (That was Tula.)
“María de la Luz Jauregui at-your-orders,” said the other.
“What a miracle!” said I. “I have been wanting to call on you ladies to ask about your house at Number 5, San Benito.”
Since I had not yet met, in San Rafael Aldama, a single inhabitant of low or high degree who had shown the least diffidence in speaking of money, I went straight to the point.
“Is it for sale?” I said, holding my breath.
“How much would you pay?” said Tula and Luz with one voice.
“You must tell me the asking price first.”
“If I and my sister Luz owned the house,” said Tulita, “as of course we should, — for it would have been the first wish of my father, — we would put a price on it now.”
Luz drew a long face.
“Unfortunately, our sisters do not agree,” she said. “So nice to have seen you.” And with that, the two ladies flounced out into the street.
The Señorita Ugarte looked as though she wanted to wink, but she didn’t, exactly.
“If you really want that old ruin up on the hill, you’d better talk to my brother,” she said. “Carmen and Trinidad have had their hearts set on it for years. Before the roofs all caved in, they used to say they wanted to live there.”
THERE was no escaping Lawyer Ugarte. I found him most cheerful, considering that nothing had come of ten years of cajoling the Jauregui sisters. He read me his manuscript chapter on Quetzalcoatl, the fair-skinned god of the Aztecs, and told me not to have any worry.
“Give me eight days,” said he. “In eight days you shall have the deed in your pocket.” (I had already promised a hundred pesos for his pocket.)
Doña Carlota was vastly amused.
“Eight days!” she repeated, when I told her the story. “I’ll give you eight years, or I don’t know Tulita Jauregui,”
I admit to dismay when the Marquesa described the last meeting of the Jauregui family, Brother Jorge and the sisters, at the house of Lawyer Ugarte. They were gathered together to discuss a proposal of marriage which don Claudio Sanchez had made, through the brother, to Sister Tulita.
With the understanding that she could keep Luz always by her, Tula would have married the Spanish grain-merchant with pleasure. But a marriage without family consent would have been vulgar. Brother Jorge rode in from the ranch, and the sisters proceeded — at uncompromising intervals — to the house of the lawyer, where each was invited to speak of the proposal in turn.
It was Marta, the oldest, who summed up the case for the elders. What, she had said, did anyone really know of don Claudio? He had come from Spain poor and now he was rich. That was all that one knew. Now, money was power, money was nice, don Pablo’s daughter conceded, while the sisters sighed and remembered their hot charcoal ovens; but a nobleman’s child couldn’t marry money just fresh from the mint. That was the end of the formal family discussion, but it was Carmen who put in the last word as she stood up and nodded to Trini.
“It’s no use, Tulita,” she said, breaking the long habit of silence. “Marta won’t let you get married. You may as well let your skirts down like the rest of us now.”
Doña Carlota patted my hand. “You see how it is with the Jauregui house on the hill,” she said gently.
At the end of a week I dropped in on Lawyer Ugarte. It was in my mind to suggest that the strain might be eased if the house were assigned to the share of the more neutral brother, who might then be persuaded to sign on the line.
“But it’s all settled,” said Lawyer Ugarte. “Didn’t I tell you last week that the deed would be ready? Jorge is coming in from the ranch. He’ll be here tomorrow. We’re going to let you have Number 5 and divide up the money. Come back tomorrow — we shall arrange the whole matter.”
I called again the following day, and the next.
“Ho! Ho!” said Lawyer Ugarte. “You gringos want everything done in a minute.”
“‘A thousand years are as one day,’” I said to myself. “The minute of my impatience stretches from January to June.” And I began to retrace my steps through a dusty gale to the pension of doña Carlota.
“I have reached the extreme limit of endurance,” I said to the Marquesa at supper. “Mañana, mañana! I am sick of mañana! Tomorrow, either Jorge comes to sell me that house, or I am off to Mexico City.”
Doña Carlota was munching a sandwich of fried pumpkin blossoms.
“Then pray for good weather, señor,” she said. “The season of water follows the gales of the spring.”
“So what?” I inquired, not seeing her logic.
“Pues; you will soon enough see.”
That night it rained. The fountains of the great deep broke up, the windows of heaven were opened, the waters of the flood fell upon the dry earth. San Rafael, in midmorning, was transfigured. I had known the town to be pink and dry and brown and beautiful. Suddenly it became moist and green and radiant, more splendidly desirable for habitation. The clipped laurels in the plaza glistened; the cobbled paving stones sparkled under my feet; worn stone gutters spilled the gathering waters over a thirsty landscape long after the rains had ceased.
Señor Ugarte was looking out of his office window when I went to see him, happily looking across the street into the freshly drenched gardens of the Franciscan convent, and thinking, no doubt, of his fields in the country, now turning green under a blessing of rain.
“Bad luck, señor,” he called down to me out of the window. “We cannot expect to see don Jorge in town until after the rainy season. The roads will be terrible.” Lawyer Ugarte rubbed his hands, but with more joy (it seemed to me) than sorrow.
“Never you mind,” he went on. “Let’s see — June, July, August, September — maybe October. Don Jorge will come sometime in October, don’t fear. The family are anxious to settle the estate.”
“But I’ve got to go back to the States in September,” I said, and I wanted to have my house all ready and finished by then.”
“Too bad,” said the advocate, wringing blame from the tips of his fat, brown fingers. “The Lord makes the weather.”
“Too bad,” said the Marquesa de Mora, licking her chops over a dish of wild dove. “Perhaps mañana will bring better luck.”
“Tomorrow, señora,” I said, as I went up to pack, “tomorrow I shall be in Mexico City.”